Pathways toward the Third Age: Studying a Cohort from the "Golden Age"1

By Winter, David G.; Torges, Cynthia M. et al. | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Pathways toward the Third Age: Studying a Cohort from the "Golden Age"1


Winter, David G., Torges, Cynthia M., Stewart, Abigail J., Henderson-King, Donna, Henderson-King, Eaaron, Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics


During the last half of the twentieth century, a Third Age of life has become a real possibility for Americans of many social strata, instead of just a few privileged people, as Sorenson (this volume) demonstrates. This unprecedented demographic development will obviously require social planning, policy initiatives, and preparation. Equally important, however, is the matter of psychological preparation. How do people approach their Third Age? As they move toward retirement-perhaps in their 60s-with the prospect of several years, perhaps even decades, before the onset of infirmities and the approach of death, what anticipations do they have about this new stage of life? What are their hopes and fears? What hazards lie ahead? And what resources are relevant to avoiding these hazards?

Identifying critical psychological and social risk and strength factors is important for framing the terms of discourse for public policy, as well as for facilitating private preparations by Third Agers, their families, and those dedicated to helping them. On the one hand, if people can manage many of their Third Age problems by having enough money, then one would expect that any social-structural variables associated with greater availability and control of resources (race, gender, social class) will be critical for successful Third Age adaptation. On the other hand, psychological factors and personal strengths-both in addition to, and sometimes in spite of, social factors-are also likely to be as important for this stage as for earlier stages of the life cycle.

The prospect of a widely available Third Age is a challenge to existing social science theories about adult development and aging. Erikson's (1950) well-known "eight stages of the life cycle" theory of adult development was originally developed in the 1940s, when life expectancies were considerably shorter and most people had only a few years between retirement and death-if, indeed, they could afford to retire in a time before widespread pensions and Social Security. Erikson suggested that, after a mid-life stage of generativity (in which the central tasks are raising children and/or "producing") comes the final stage of integrity-versus-despair, in which people review and make meaning of their lives and come to terms with the inevitability of impending death. Erikson's theory is epigenetic: That is, what happens to a person at each stage (success, failure, fixation) has consequences for how, and how well, that person will proceed through all subsequent stages.

Is there more? Does the prospect of a Third Age suggest revisions or additions to Erikson's schema? Or can "generativity" and "integrity" somehow be expanded, partially merged, and stretched out to cover a range of years, possibilities, and problems that were virtually unknown 50 years ago, when his life-cycle theory was first published (see Erikson, 1982).

In his earliest publication on the life cycle, Erikson (1950) devoted only two pages to integrity-versus-despair. Later, he elaborated the nature and tasks of this final stage to include a variety of related elements: wisdom; mature hope; continued generativity; "integrality, a tendency to keep things together"; and a "timeless love for those few . . . who have become the main counterplayers in life's most significant contexts" (Erikson, 1982, p. 65). These themes all come together in the theme of vital involvement (Erikson, Erikson, & Kivnick, 1986), a concept that suggests both continued activity and continued connection (see, for example, James & Zarrett, 2005). That is, successful resolution of the final stage involves continued activity that is connected to other people and society at large.

What are the alternatives to this successful resolution? Faced with the inevitability of declining capacities and resources, some people may withdraw: holding on to what they have, shutting down their involvements, and taking refuge in a psychological "bunker" to await their inevitable physical death. …

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